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Word from Wormingford

05 December 2014

St Edmund watches as Ronald Blythe takes shelter from the rain

TORRENTIAL rain for St Edmund, our Sebastian-like protector, his cult a thousand years old. Thin and shiny on his plinth, bristling with arrows, he watches us process by under our umbrellas as we hurry into the dry.

Legend has it that he was 15 when they crowned him King of the Angles on Christmas Day on the height opposite my bedroom, this being the borderland of the East Angles and the East Saxons - a German prince who had inherited the crown. For many years, he was our patron saint. Then the crusaders changed him for a soldier - St George. Some would change George for Edmund at this moment, but when one is old, one tends to make do with existing arrangements, all passion being spent.

Frances Ward and Janet Wheeler are less feeble, and have presented us with a fiery anthem in which holy Edmund's decapitation, horribly reminiscent of what has been occurring at this moment, makes him a shockingly contemporary Christian. There is no escaping the darkness of every age.

Time was when history in church was a local tableau staged by children. Now, it is terribly grown-up. Bronze St Edmund on his plinth in the pouring rain is the young man who leaves England for Syria to "help out", and is murdered for his pains. Time was when days like this were county pageantry; now, they stage human history of the moment, and it can be terrible.

No peasants today, only mayors in tricorne hats and golden chains, a Lord Lieutenant, the higher clergy, bell-ringers, and the dear familiar faces of those who make great churches spotless, who laaunder, brush, polish, arrange flowers, mend, lay markers in huge books, carry processional crosses, hand out this and that, and keep the rich interior movement going. And trumpeters for Britten's Fanfare. And then Marriott's oceanic plea for wisdom, love, and might to "move o'er the water's face".

I fancied that I could hear the rain bouncing on the leads and the gargoyles' guiding it to the ground. Old churches take the local climate in hand, splashing it away from their walls, channelling it into graves and beneath huge trees. The distant sound of it accompanies the anthem, a Beowulfian hymn by the Dean and her friend, a confrontation of the barbaric and the Christian. That continuous war of opposites in which nothing seems to change whatever the century.

Christ is revealed, but so is human enormity. Hope looks on. Robert Bridges echoes Christ's sad prophecy on the Jerusalem Temple, then brand new. When George Herbert died, they called his poems The Temple. He called them "my writings". But the Church of England sees its language architectur-ally, building up its faith to dizzy heights and allowing it to sink to depths from which it has to be rescued.

On St Edmund's Day, everything is said, sung, and done to the sound of the rain - a steady autumnal downpour that finds out where roofs are fragile, and roads are sinking. Our car has to nose its way through it, like an ark pointed towards a haven, its windscreen wipers like a metronome. Or a pulse.

We travel through a hurricane, but when we brake and stop, it is hardly raining at all. It is not quite light when I look for Edmund's coronation hill over the Stour. It is, at usual, no more than a watercolour brush-stroke; a barely visible sign that he was there. And thus here with us still.

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